The 2016 Lorne Trottier Public Science Symposium

The 2016 Lorne Trottier Public Science Symposium took place in Montreal on October 17 and 18. This year’s event, entitled Science and the Media: The challenge of reporting science responsibly, offered public lectures from four prominent science journalists. The talks all focused on one main theme: the role of the media in interpreting science and communicating its ideas to the public. Scientific papers often include technical jargon, making them rather inaccessible to the general public. As such, journalists become the interface between the scientific community and the wider population.

DAY 1

The first guest speaker was Julia Belluz, the senior health correspondent for the news website Vox. She brought the issue to light by highlighting the degree to which misinformation permeates the media, and the responsibility that science journalists carry. To report science responsibly, she outlined a five-step plan that she abbreviates as ISCES (not the terrorist group, she assured).

  1. Infiltrate. Ms. Belluz’s first recommendation was to “avoid preaching to the converted,” and to reach out to audiences that normally wouldn’t be reached. She suggested that journalists use YouTube and social media as outlets to reach wider and atypical audiences.
  2. Shame. Her second recommendation was to hold people accountable for poor scientific journalism. In addition to the journalists responsible for misleading articles, the publishers should be penalized for enabling irresponsible reporting.
  3. Contextualize. When reporting on quackery, Ms. Belluz asserted that the context must be taken into account. Pseudoscientific books that aren’t prominent in the public consciousness might not be worth reporting on, when more influential forms of irresponsible science communication can be debunked.
  4. Educate. From a young age, children must be taught critical thinking skills, or, as Ms. Belluz put it, to “detect bullshit when bullshit is presented to them.”
  5. Sympathize. Her final recommendation was to have sympathy when considering peoples’ misinterpretations of science. She discussed the case of an unvaccinated Amish community in Ohio, which was the site of the largest measles outbreak in recent US history. When she contacted them, they explained that it wasn’t vaccine denial or their religion that founded their distrust of vaccination. Instead, it was an alleged instance in which a member of their community had been harmed by a vaccine. This had founded generational fear, which had been difficult to surmount.

The second speaker was Erica Johnson, a Canadian journalist and host of the TV series Marketplace on CBC. Her talk focused on the increasing use of alternative medicine, and the role of the media in scrutinizing claims made about such products. She shared her experience in reporting on homeopathy, a form of medication where substances that normally cause certain symptoms are diluted to minute amounts in order to “treat” illnesses that cause those same symptoms. In her investigations, she found that some of these pills contained only sugar. In some instances, companies that were pressed for the scientific basis of their products presented improperly conducted studies. Ms. Johnson went on to critique Health Canada, which has issued licences for thousands of alternative treatments that have little scientific backing. Such treatments, even if innocuous in themselves, can be highly dangerous due to the false sense of security that they foster. In the belief that an alternative medicine is sufficient treatment, people may neglect proper medical care for life-threatening conditions.

DAY 2

The first speaker on the second day of the conference was Trevor Butterworth, the founding director of the non-profit Sense About Science USA, and the editor of STATS.org. He discussed inadequacies within scientific journalism throughout the 20th century, with poor reporting on prominent scientific advances such as the telegraph, Sputnik, and the atomic bomb. The public was often more interested in the image of the absent-minded professor than in the science itself. A foolish story about Albert Einstein miscounting his change was of more interest to the public than his theories about the universe. Even other types of media propagated this negative view of science, with prominent films such as The Thing and Dr. Frankenstein presenting science as an obsession with knowledge, coupled with amorality. With the popular ideas of the absent-minded professor and the dangers of science, it is unsurprising that in the late 1950s it was thought that only 12% of people understood what science truly entails. Mr. Butterworth then turned towards issues that still permeate modern science today. For example, the use of the term Frankenfoods as a popularized word for genetically modified foods demonstrates that it is still taboo to interfere with nature. On a separate note, Mr. Butterworth also discussed the issue of poorly conducted science. The lack of repeatability in research is an issue, and, as he put it, some researchers are doing “too much trusting and not enough verifying.” To close, Mr. Butterworth showed that the public grasp of science has somewhat improved, with 29% now estimated to understand its conduct. However, he advised both scientists and journalists to carefully frame their facts, lest they become actors in the wrong stories.

The final speaker was Joel Achenback, an author and staff writer for The Washington Post. His talk focused on the role of science in not only debunking quackery, but also in enforcing more rigour within science itself. Citing examples from his career as a journalist, he illustrated that even good scientists can make mistakes, and that peer-review is essential in correcting these mistakes. Mr. Achenback suggested reasons for why the public may sometimes find it challenging to accept scientifically supported ideas. For example, he discussed the way in which our beliefs can often become tied to our identity. When elaborating, he apologetically brought up the 2016 US Election and Donald Trump’s views on science. According to Mr. Achenback, when Trump voices his opinions on climate change, he is not simply making a statement about science, but is identifying as a member of a community of people who don’t believe in climate change. Mr. Achenback argued that people often live within specific spheres of influence, citing his interaction with a Trump supporter at one of Trump’s rallies, in which she claimed to know no supporters of Hillary Clinton. The media we choose to watch and the people we choose to spend time with are usually those that share similar views. This can lead to ideological isolation, which acts as a barrier to the broadening of perspectives and the spread of information. In the final minutes of his talk, Mr. Achenback explained that science does not simply provide a series of absolute truths, but helps us get closer to the truth over time.

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